Over 20 students led by members of the Brandeis Labor Coalition (BLC) walked to President Ron Liebowitz’s office on Nov. 22 to ask that Brandeis guarantee the retention of current dining workers as the university considers new potential dining providers.
Brandeis is seeking proposals for a new dining provider since the university and its current dining provider, Sodexo, mutually agreed to terminate the two organizations’ existing contract which will end in June 2020, according to an earlier Hoot article. The university invited Sodexo to reapply, according to an earlier Hoot article.
Brandeis sent the Request for Proposal (RFP) to between six and seven interested dining companies yesterday, on Dec. 4, according to the Student Union’s Senator-at-Large and Senate Dining Committee Chair Nancy Zhai ’22. And the RFP includes, in writing, that Brandeis expects its dining contractor to make every effort to retain unionized employees, under the union UNITE HERE Local 26, said Zhai.
“One of [the] expectations is that [the] bidder has to make every effort to retain the current workers and who are under the union contract,” said Zhai.
The BLC circulated a petition among the student body and tabled in Upper Usdan for signatures in the week leading up to Nov. 23, gaining around 733 signatures by Nov. 23, according to BLC secretary Arthi Jacob ’21 in an interview with The Brandeis Hoot.
Another BLC member since her first year, Madeline Bisgyer ’20, told The Hoot she was impressed by the number of signatures collected.
“It’s just indicative that there’s a big connection between the students who go here, faculty members and dining workers,” Jacob said. “People want to make sure dining hall workers are respected and that they have job protections just like everybody deserves.”
A member of the group read aloud the protest to Liebowitz’s senior executive administrator, Heidi Popkin, since the university president was not in his office.
“We the Brandeis community demand an employee retention requirement be included in the Brandeis dining program Request for Proposal…After voicing the need for employee retention at the dining program open forums, we were told that employee retention would not be guaranteed in the RFP. This shows a blatant disrespect for the hardworking people who are vital to the functioning of the Brandeis campus. It also disregards the open process for community input in drafting the request,” read part of the petition.
Popkin thanked the students for coming forward, and said, “That was very well said. We all appreciate it and I will definitely pass this on.” The group of approximately 25 students then filed out of Bernstein Marcus administrative center to take a group photo in the light rain before dispersing.
Unionized, front-line employee’s jobs will likely be protected because union contracts are negotiated separately from the overall dining contract, according to an earlier Hoot article. It is unclear, however, if management will keep their jobs. Zhai said that the retention of managers would not be guaranteed.
“This is the most common question I’ve been getting from students,” said Zhai in an interview with The Hoot. “I see this as a really great thing…that we actually care about the people that cook food for us.”
Bisgyer said that no matter what, dining workers needed to be protected.
“No matter what happens if there isn’t worker retention, if workers here are not allowed to stay… we will ensure that that doesn’t happen,” Bisgyer said in an interview with The Hoot. “We will do everything within our ability to ensure that workers get to stay here.”
The BLC began to explore a dining campaign in early November when the organization partnered with Uprooted and Rising, a group focused on food sustainability, according to an earlier Hoot article. Uprooted and Rising criticized large dining corporations, including Sodexo and Aramark, which provided dining services to Brandeis before the university’s contract with Sodexo. Since that initial meeting, BLC members and other students have met several times to discuss the future of Brandeis dining.The Hoot reached out to Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration Stuart Uretsky about worker retention, but Uretsky did not respond by press time. In an earlier Hoot article, Liebowitz said more funds would go towards a new contract to provide better food quality.
The university had not responded to the BLC as of press time.